Is it all just wasted time?
Can you live with yourself
When you think of what
You left behind?
“Wasted Time” — Sebastian Philip Bierk; David Michael Sabo; Rachel Bolan Southworth
I used to lose sleep for days or weeks. When it happened, I never felt safe; I couldn’t focus; and I’d always latch onto the idea that something really great or something really bad was imminent. Once I thought I’d win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. Another time I thought I’d get myself a job writing for “Saturday Night Live.” It happened every nine to 18 months. Sometimes events would trigger it. Every time “Uncle Gus” came to visit (See Some Things You Can’t Forgive); right before my wedding; when my first marriage ended; the first time my grandmother got sick.
For weeks, I wouldn’t know what day or what time it was, I’d lose hours, days, classes, jobs and friends. It started when I was 17 and Yaya had to go to the hospital. I couldn’t sleep for a week. The episodes were mild at first. During that one, I went to school, shrieked at a tap on the shoulder, started my job at Baskin Robbins, cried when my boyfriend stood at the counter, insisting I quit, and then they fired me.
My parents didn’t take that episode seriously, or the next one or the next. Once, when I was 21, after 2 or 3 weeks of freaking out and telling my concerned friends I was ok, they did take me to the Crisis Center in Carmel, where two nice men listened to me and gave me some pills. I slept for three days, woke up fine, and that was that. Problem solved. I remember once having a psychiatrist appointment after an episode, and he prescribed something that made me feel stoned. I complained, stopped taking it, and never saw him again.
My first husband tried to help me. Shortly before our wedding, I freaked out and he took me to see doctors but they didn’t help. They thought I was anxious, or depressed, or just psychotic. When our marriage ended, I freaked out again. That was the time I thought I’d work for SNL. I went to a psychiatrist recommended by our marriage counselor and I told him what my problem was. “You’re bipolar,” he said. Just like that. He prescribed some medication. I’ve never had another episode and now you’d never know that I’m mentally ill. Even during the early years, my disease wasn’t new or exotic. Everyone knew about bipolar disorder. It was all over Oprah. I even taped that episode for my mother and told her that’s what I thought I had. She waved my theory away. I worked with several therapists over the years. But no one deduced the right diagnosis before my 29th year.
And that’s what kills me. The wasted time. How much living could I have done if I didn’t freak out all the time? If I hadn’t lost all those jobs, could I have had a real career? Would I have published a book by now? What happened to those days and weeks I lost? What about all those years that I wrote off my own sanity?
I’ll never know. Losing all that time is one of my biggest regrets. Why couldn’t I just admit to myself I was sick and go to the right doctors? Why couldn’t I accept that there was something really wrong with me? I honestly didn’t know how easy the solution would be. A few pills a day and I’m a normal person. I think if I had known that, I’d have done it sooner. But I was so scared. So scared to get labeled, so scared to hear the truth. And now I mourn the loss of all that time.
Was the time really wasted? When I was in a 12-Step program, they said, “Everything happens right on time.” It’s a perfectly reasonable statement except for regrets that tear us up inside, yet those regrets are the very issues that sentiment’s about.
Between the ages of 17 and 29, I managed to graduate high school, get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology (believe me, the irony isn’t lost), work in a psychiatric hospital (again, I get it), move to Florida, realize I wanted to write, place my first published article in a magazine, move back to New York, get a job at a newspaper, survive a horrific car accident, learn to live with the resulting brain damage, land and lose another newspaper job, get married, get divorced and get a national reporting job that moved me to Washington, D.C.
Also during that time I established my reputation as a slut in high school; attempted suicide; used drugs; quit drugs; dropped out of two colleges; lost at least five jobs; adopted a puppy; gave him up; showed up psychotic at work; moved without telling my roommate; lost several friends; and knowingly embarked upon a doomed marriage.
When I first learned about death as a kid, I used to lie in backseat of the car on the way home from Yaya’s in the city, and I’d think, In the next minute, I’ll be one minute closer to death. And the next minute, it’ll be closer. And closer! I’ve learned a little about the passage of time since then, but I’m no less alarmist when it comes to death. I was 38 when I had my first child. My first thought was, “I’ll be almost 50 when she’s 10!” My next thought: “When she’s 40, I’ll be 80. Oh, no just how much of her life will I live to see?”
It’s no surprise that a kid like that would grow up to obsess about wasted time. And maybe that is my lesson to learn, my cross to bear. Maybe that’s why I’ve wasted so much – fodder for this cosmic lesson. Maybe regret is my driving force. If I didn’t feel I was so behind, maybe I’d never push myself to accomplish anything. I try to live as if I’ll get hit by a bus tomorrow. For every activity I consider writing off, I think, Ok, so if I die tomorrow, will I be satisfied with what I’ve done? The answer’s always no, but thinking about it helps me prioritize. When I’m dead, will folded clothes really matter? Ok, no, but writing that chapter will. Will I care whether Rose’s toys are picked up? Shit, Matt can do that before the mourners come, but if I read her a story right now, she’ll have one more memory of Mommy.
It’s a morbid method, yes, but I don’t encounter a lot of buses, so the statistical probability’s in my favor. And it helps me decide what’s really important. When I worked at the newspaper, I wrote obituaries. Hundreds of them. During that time, I decided that when I died, I wanted a kick-ass obituary. One that would make readers say, “Wow, what a life!” Or “Wow, I didn’t know she did all that!” So I shifted my focus from trying to fulfill other people’s expectations to defining and fulfilling my own. I decided that the pursuit of happiness trumped the pursuit of money or approval or prestige. It’s not like the founding fathers wrote “money, prestige and social standing” into the Declaration of Independence. Those guys knew the deal. I guess you had to when no one lived past 40. Maybe they thought about death all the time too. It might be morbid, but my method works for me. I just wish I had learned it sooner.
You build your resume. I’ll build my obituary. — Maria Bellos Fisher